Genre: Women's Fiction
Print No. of Pages: 320
Date of Publication: July 14, 2020
My Rating: 3 Stars
From Katherine Center, the New York Times bestselling author of How to Walk Away comes a stunning new novel full of heart and hope.
Samantha Casey loves everything about her job as an elementary school librarian on the sunny, historic island of Galveston, Texas—the goofy kids, the stately Victorian building, the butterfly garden. But when the school suddenly loses its beloved principal, it turns out his replacement will be none other than Duncan Carpenter—a former, unrequited crush of Sam’s from many years before.
When Duncan shows up as her new boss, though, he’s nothing like the sweet teacher she once swooned over. He’s become stiff, and humorless, and obsessed with school safety. Now, with Duncan determined to destroy everything Sam loves about her school in the name of security—and turn it into nothing short of a prison—Sam has to stand up for everyone she cares about before the school that’s become her home is gone for good.
Samantha Casey is not the only person who is devastated by the sudden death of the beloved principal of the elementary school where she is a librarian. Samantha was very close to the principal and remains close to his wife Babette. As a matter of fact, Babette is well respected at the school as well, and pretty much everyone thought the job would be passed on to her. Samantha is more than shocked when she hears the announcement that a teacher she knows quite well - Duncan Carpenter - is taking the job.
Well, this is problematic for Samantha. The two have a bit of a past. Samantha once had a huge crush on the fun-loving guy. Who she sees now is a different man altogether. He is far too serious, intent on change as to the way the school is run, and is especially intent on safety precautions. To the dismay of the rest of the staff, other changes are in order. These changes will be sure to upset the staff as well as the students.
Samantha is still crushing on Duncan, even though he is not the man she remembers. She really wants to know why he is such a different man and is determined to get to the bottom of things. For some reason this book read kind of young to me. Actually, I had to check the genre because with Samantha's behavior this felt like it was written for a younger audience. I get that with Samantha's job as a librarian for younger children, she has a gentle soul, but again, seemed rather young throughout the story. In some ways, however, I was able to relate to her and the story did end up on a very sweet note.
However, the narration really helped to make this book more enjoyable as it was narrated by Therese Plummer, someone whom I have had the pleasure of listening to in Kelley Armstrong's Casey Duncan series and Brenda Novak's Evelyn Talbot series. Since I tend to binge listen to series I have grown quite comfortable with Therese Plummer's excellent narration. For me, this always ratchets up the enjoyment value of the books I listen to.
Many thanks to St. Martin's Press, McMillan Audio and to NetGalley for this ARC for review. This is my honest opinion.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Please enjoy the following excerpt:
Later, after Babette had gone up to bed, and most folks had gone home, as I rinsed cans and bottles for recycling at the kitchen sink, Alice leaned against the counter and said, “What’s going on, Sam?”
Her shirt today said, “GRAPHING IS WHERE I DRAW THE LINE.”
Even though Alice was a year younger than me—27—she was also six inches taller than me, and so she had a big-sisterly vibe. She was engaged to her college sweetheart, Marco, who was in the navy and went on long deployments. They rented a little 1920s bungalow a few blocks down. When he was gone, I saw a lot of her—and when he was here, I saw almost nothing of her.
He had shipped out a week before Max died, and though I wouldn’t want to say I was glad Alice was alone these days, let’s just say I was grateful to have a friend.
She knew me pretty well. Well enough to know something more was up than I’d confessed to the group.
“So,” she said, like she’d been waiting all night for all the other bozos to leave. “What did you leave out?”
I met her eyes, and I said, “Duncan Carpenter is The Guy.”
I pursed my lips and leaned in to intensify my look. Then I said, slowly: “The Guy.”
Alice frowned a second, then said, in recognition, “The Guy?”
I gave an unmistakable nod, like, Bingo.
“The The Guy? The one who drove you out of California?”
“I beg your pardon. I drove myself.”
“But he’s the one from your old school? That you were obsessed with?”
Alice squinted at me. “Pretty obsessed.”
“It was not an obsession. It was a healthy, red-blooded, American crush.”
Now Alice was trying to remember. It had been a while—a lifetime, really—since we’d talked about it. “Didn’t you snoop in his diary?”
“I wasn’t snooping, I was feeding his cats while he was out of town.”
“But you read his diary.”
“Well, he left it lying open on the kitchen table. You could argue that on some unconscious level, he wanted me to read it.”
Alice gave me a second to decide if I could stand by that statement.
“Plus,” I went on. “It wasn’t a diary. It was just a notebook.”
“A notebook full of private thoughts.”
“We all have private thoughts, Alice,” I said, as if that was somehow a good point.
“You shouldn’t have taken that cat-sitting job in the first place,” she said.
“What was I supposed to do? Let his cat starve? It was de-clawed and missing a tail.”
“It wasn’t even his cat. It was the fiancée’s cat.”
“I didn’t know that at the time.”
Alice gave me a look then that was part affection, part scolding, and part Give me a break.
Anyway, there was no point in continuing the denials. She knew the whole story. I had read his notebook that day all those years ago while he was on vacation in wine country about to get engaged—or that was the rumor, anyway. And I hadn’t just read the one page that was facing up on the table, either. I had grabbed a pair of kitchen tongs from the drawer—as if not touching the pages with my fingers somehow made it less awful—and used them to turn every single page, searching for clues to his soul like some kind of lovestruck Sherlock Holmes, and careful—like a crazy person—not to leave any fingerprints.
What can I say? It was a low point.
A very low point.
And, actually, it became a turning point.
Before that moment back then, I’d been infatuated with Duncan Carpenter for two solid years. Big time infatuated. Hard-core infatuated. Infatuated the way teenage girls get infatuated with pop stars. If he’d had song lyrics, I’d have memorized them; if he’d had merch, I‘d have bought it; and if he’d had a fan club, I’d have been the president.
Of course, he wasn’t a pop star.
But he was, you know . . . a celebrity of sorts. In the world of private, secondary school education. In our tiny little sliver of humanity, he was a big deal. He was the pop icon of our teaching colleagues, for sure.
And for good reason.
He had a big, friendly smile filled with big, friendly teeth. He was handsome without trying. He had a magnetic quality that was almost physical. If he was in a room with other humans in it for any amount of time, there’d be a group of them gathered around him by the end. He emitted some kind of sunshine that we all wanted to soak up.
But I was terrible around him. I was the worst possible version of myself. All the longing and desire and electricity and joy I felt whenever he was anywhere near me seemed to scramble my system. I’d freeze, and get quiet and still and self-conscious, and stare at him, unblinking, like a weirdo.
It was uncomfortable, to say the least.
When I’d first met him, he was single—and he stayed that way for one long, beautiful, possibility-infused year as I tried to work up the nerve to sit at his table at lunch. A year that slipped by fast, and then suddenly, before I’d made any progress—Boom! —a perky new girl from the admissions office just brazenly asked him out.
Their assigned parking spots were next to each other, apparently.
It was front-page teacher news, and the grade-school faculty were by and large offended. Wasn’t it a little uppity to just swoop in and start dating whoever she wanted?
Soon, they were exclusive, and then they were serious, and then, barely a year to the day after she’d first asked him out, they were moving in together. Rumor had it she’d been the one to ask him. A move I would’ve admired for feminist reasons if it had been any other couple at all.
The consensus among the female teachers was that she was too conventional, too small-minded, and too ordinary to be a good match for him—mostly because he was the opposite of all those things.
Frankly, I agreed—but I also knew my opinion was based largely on one short interaction, when, awkwardly trying to make chit-chat at a school function, I’d said to her, “Admissions! That must be tough! How do you make all those agonizing decisions?”
And she just blinked at me and said, “It’s just whoever has the most money.”
Then, reading my shocked expression, she shifted to a laugh and said, “I’m kidding.”
But was she, though?
Nobody was sure she deserved him.
Of course . . . it didn’t follow that I did.
I couldn’t even say hi to him in the elevator.
Anyway, it was not five minutes after I’d heard the moving-in-together news—from a librarian who’d heard it from a math teacher who’d heard it from the school nurse—that, as I was making my way outside to gulp some fresh air . . . he asked me to cat-sit.
I just rounded the corner of the hallway, and there he was. Wearing a tie with Dachshunds all over it.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” I said, panicking at the way he’d . . . just materialized."
Then, of all things, he said, “I’ve heard you’re a cat person.”
A cat person? Nope. But, not wanting to kill the conversation, I shrugged and said, “I’m more of a dog person, actually.”
He blinked at me.
“I mean,” I went on, feeling like I’d said the wrong thing. “I’m not opposed to cats . . .”
“Don’t you have a bunch of them?”
“I don’t have any cats,” I added, just to be clear. “At all.”
“Huh. Somebody told me you had like three cats.”
Wow. The only thing he knew about me . . . and it was wrong. Or maybe he thought I was somebody else entirely.
He looked as disappointed as I felt.
I reminded myself to breathe.
“I don’t dislike cats,” I said, then, to cheer him up. “I don’t wish them harm or anything. I’m just . . . neutral.”
He nodded. “Got it.” Then he started to turn away.
“Wait!” I said. “Why?”
He paused. “I’m looking for a cat sitter. For the weekend. Just one night, actually.”
And then, truly, without even considering how pathetic it would be for me to be cleaning the litterboxes of my true love while he was off on a romantic weekend with his new live-in-girlfriend, I said, “I’ll do it.”
“Sure. No problem at all.”
Next thing I knew, there I was, in his apartment, snooping—and doing unspeakable things with his kitchen tongs.
So what was I looking for, exactly, as I tong-flipped those pages in that notebook? What could I possibly have been hoping to find? Some note-to-self that he didn’t really want to be the woman he’d just invited to live in his home? Some daydream doodle of a face that looked remarkably like mine? Some secret code only I could break that spelled out H-E-L-P M-E?
Anyway, there was nothing like that.
There were grocery lists. Reminders. A half-written letter to his mom. A circled note to get his baby niece a 1-year birthday present, with the words “baby biker jacket” scratched out and replaced with: “Something cool.” Doodles (mostly 3-D boxes), and to-do lists, and a whole bunch of tally marks on the cardboard of the back cover. Nothing special, or memorable, or even private. The normal detritus of a perfectly not-unhappy life that had nothing at all to do with me.
And that’s when, flipping the pages back into position, a very important word came into my head: “Enough.”
I heard it almost clearly as if I’d said it out loud. And then I did say it out loud.
Then I shook my head. I couldn’t keep living like this—stealing glances, brushing past him in the hallways, sitting near—but not too near—his table at lunch, pausing to watch him leading kindergarten dance parties on the playground. Yearning.
I had to shut it down. He’d chosen somebody else. It was time to move on.
And even though I did not always, or even often, follow the life advice I gave myself—on that day I did. I put the tongs back in the drawer, walked out, locked the door, drove straight home, and got on the web to start looking for new job.
Anyway, that was how I’d ended up in Texas, of all places—though that was how almost everybody wound up in Texas: love or money.
I’d come to this island by chance, but I’d found a real home here, way down at the bottom of the country in this wind-battered, historic town. I loved the painted Victorian houses with their carpenter gothic porches. I loved the brick cobblestone streets and the tourist T-shirt shops. I loved the muddy, soft sand and the easy waves of the Gulf lapping the shore. I loved how the town was both humble and proud, both battered and resilient, both exhausted and bursting with energy, both historic and endlessly reinventing itself.
Most of all, I loved our school. My job. The life I’d built.
A post-Duncan Carpenter life that—really—The Guy himself had no place in.
She won a creative writing scholarship in high school, and then went on to major in creative writing at Vassar College, where she won the Vassar College Fiction Prize. At 22, she won a fellowship to the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program and moved home to Texas with plans to become Jane Austen ASAP.
Didn’t happen quite that way. Of course. Instead, she began a decade of struggling, agonizing, and questioning the meaning of life before finally finding a fairy-godmother-like agent and getting a dream-come-true book deal for her debut novel, The Bright Side of Disaster.
A total happy ending. And also, just the beginning.